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Last updated March 8, 2023

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Touring Colleges: What You Need to Know

Key Takeaway

Visiting college campuses can be one of the most enlightening steps in the college search and application process. Doing certain kinds of visits can help you demonstrate interest and get inspiration for your supplemental essays. 

Ask anyone in admissions—or any family that has gone through this process—and you’re likely to hear that visiting college campuses is the best way to learn about schools. I agree!

Visiting a campus in-person, walking the grounds, seeing the buildings, and checking the general vibe is an unparalleled way to get a feel for a school. You may get a “gut feeling” about a school—either good or bad—as soon as you get out of the car. Maybe you’ll “fall in love” with a school on a tour. Or maybe you’re the type of person who needs to take in the sights and sounds, spend some time analyzing your options, and really think it over before you know how you feel.

Either way, getting on different college campuses is an important part of the admissions process.

Here, I’ll cover the various ways to visit college campuses and offer my best tips as a former admission officer for getting the most out of the process. As a bonus, I’ll even cover ways to use your visit to sneakily improve your applications!

Ways to visit college campuses:

There are a handful of ways to visit college campuses in-person, online, formally, and informally. Here are the main options you should know about.

Admissions information session and tour

The most formal and official way to visit a college campus is to sign up for an admissions information session and campus tour. Nearly every schools has opportunities to hear from admissions and take a walking tour of campus with a student tour guide. Here’s what you should know:

You’ll sign up for the session and tour on the college’s admissions website. Typically, a simple search of “Northeastern University campus tour” will get you there. Note that the offerings may vary. You might find tours with no information sessions or vice versa, so just make sure you know what you sign up for.

Book in advance when possible. These tend to fill up, especially during busy times of year like spring break, or may be less available during down seasons for the school like summer or winter break.

What to expect:

Typically, the admission information session is led by someone from the admissions office. This person is likely to review applications and might have even attended the school themselves—they should know what they’re talking about! These sessions usually last between 30-60 minutes and provide a general overview of the college, academic programs, social and extracurricular life, and admissions and financial aid policies.

The campus tour is usually led by a (very enthusiastic) current student. They’ll lead a walking tour of the campus that is 60-90 minutes in length. You’ll hit the highlights—academic buildings, dining facilities, residence halls, and athletic facilities. Depending on the campus, you might not see everything on a tour. This is your chance to hear directly from a student about their experience of the school. Remember, of course, that they are working or volunteering for the admissions office, so you’re getting the perspective of someone who probably loves their school. Which is great, but not totally unbiased.

Attend an admissions Open House

Open Houses are larger events hosted by admissions for prospective or admitted students. Many schools have creative names for them, but they are all longer events that try to offer a more in-depth look at what the college offers. Some spring open houses are only for admitted seniors.

Open houses typically allow prospective students and their families to attend different sessions depending on their interests. In addition to offering tours, they will likely offer breakout sessions on academics (e.g. the school of engineering, music, and journalism each host their own sessions),— as well as other facets of campus like athletics, financial aid, social events, research, or getting to know the city. These look different school to school.

Often, open houses will offer an opportunity to hear directly from faculty and students across disciplines. You may even attend a mock class or lecture. You’ll probably also get to dine on campus, so be sure to check out the food options.

This is a great opportunity for a deeper look at a school, to speak to more people that represent academic departments as well as student services, hear from students, and meet other prospective students. Many students even meet their future roommates and friends at open houses!

These events typically happen in the spring and fall. They are ideal for seniors who are trying to narrow down their list (in the fall) or make a final decision after receiving multiple admits (in the spring). If possible, I highly recommend attending open houses as a junior as well for some of your top choice schools.

Casual visits

At most schools, you don’t have to formally book a tour to walk around campus. Maybe you are visiting family in another town and want to check out the local college. Maybe you’re on a road trip and want to see schools along the way. Or maybe the information session and tour was full so you just showed up.

In any case, casually walking around a campus is a nice alternative when a more formal visit isn’t possible. But there are a few things you should know:

Even without an appointment, you can stop by admissions and ask for recommendations of things to see. That’s also a great place to find free visitor parking! We recommend stopping in, telling someone at the front desk approximately how long you have, if there’s anything specific you want to see, and ask them to recommend a route. They’ll be able to give you a campus map and recommendations.

Not every campus allows outside visitors without an appointment. Most do, but some campuses are fully gated with security letting people in and out. Check ahead online to see—I’ve been disappointed more than once when trying to visit a new campus.

You also might not be able to enter buildings on campus. Sometimes academic buildings are open, sometimes not. Do not try to enter any residential living spaces without permission.

Talk to strangers! One way to make the most of your informal visit is to strike up conversation with current students, faculty, or staff. The admissions office is a great place to do this (tour guides are almost always down to chat). But you might also grab lunch on campus if possible and ask students what’s good to eat, what they like and don’t like about the school, or if they feel like they made the right decision to attend. Most people on a college campus are receptive to conversation with prospective students.

Online information sessions and virtual tours

Most schools have recorded versions of their information sessions on their website. Many even offer live sessions with Q&A throughout the year—again, a quick Google search should give you this information. You might also find specialty sessions showcasing particular majors, research opportunities, financial aid, or other information on student services.

Additionally, you can attend virtual tours of many schools without leaving home. Search for them online—you might find them just on YouTube or they may have created a more formal tour experience.

Finally, search YouTube for videos about the school. You might find “a day in the life” videos from students, dorm tours, reviews, or faculty talking about opportunities within specific majors.

All that is to say that in this day and age, there is SO MUCH information available online. Nothing beats visiting in person, but not being able to visit isn’t an excuse to not do you due diligence in researching the school.

Strategic reasons to visit colleges

Now that you know what visiting a campus might look like, let’s learn about two ways to get some extra value out of your visit.

Demonstrating interest

Some colleges track “demonstrated interest”. In short, the schools that track demonstrated interest want to see that you have taken steps (in addition to applying) to show you really like their school. Check out our post on demonstrated interest for more detailed information.

Demonstrated interest is an unscientific measure of gauging how likely an applicant is to attend a school if admitted based on how much “interest” they have demonstrated in that school throughout the admissions process. Attending an information session and tour, interviewing, connecting with admissions via email, or attending an online session may all count towards demonstrating interest. So, signing up for and attending an information session might be a point in your favor once you apply.

Note that not all schools track demonstrated interest. Those that do are public about it. You can find out if the schools you are interested in track demonstrated interest through our Common Data Set posts.

Gather information for supplemental essays

Once you apply to schools, you’ll have to write supplemental essays for most of the schools on your list. You’ll want to connect your own interests and experiences to the opportunities and offerings of the school.

So, take notes during your visit! What did you see that interests you? Did you connect with your tour guide about your intended major? Did you see a research lab you’d like to engage with? Maybe you learned about the vast study abroad programs that you’d like to take part in. Your visit can give you ideas of things to write about, and you might even find creative ways to incorporate aspects of your time on campus in essays.

We have tons of resources on writing supplemental essays. Check out our how to get in series for information on specific schools, this post on what you need to know about supplemental essays, or join our Essay Academy course all about writing standout college essays.

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